Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"The Good Body" - Celebrates Women

Okay, nearly everyone has a bit of belly, whether it's hidden beneath a shirt or not. Go ahead and argue: you saw someone who hasn't any body fat doing an ab roller spot on late, late or early, early television. Point taken without dispute. The rest of us have, bet the house, midsection problems. Eve Ensler, known for breaking barriers with "The Vagina Monologues" and the author of several provocative, searing dramas, garners many a laugh with "The Good Body," continuing at Hartford Stage through Sunday.

Eve (the character does represent Ensler) stands at center stage, lifts her shirt, and bestows a midsection which appears to be gently soft. Not obese, not fat. Actress Brigitte Viellieu-Davis plays the Ensler persona, one who has been haunted, seemingly forever, by the contour of her stomach - which is not board flat.

Three women take on a multitude of individuals as the playwright banters or comments, more seriously, about: weight, body-image, two-person relationships, and various societies. Erica Bradsaw (as Woman 2), is a wholesome, large individual who goes to fat camp. Through Ensler's caustic wit, Bradsaw wonderfully, absolutely, and completely trashes the camp's philosophy/psychology. Bradsaw, who happens to be African-American, demonstrates her mettle with another role as she effectively displays a Yiddisha accent.

Playing Woman 1 is Judith Delgado, a terrific stage actress, who is at her comic best when she embodies a Puerto Rican
woman immersed in therapy. As the play continues, Delgado appears, for a time, to grow physically older. That vignette spins around surgery to tighten the vagina.

Never timid, Ensler explores: thighs which spread, life and times with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and so on.

"The Good Body" isn't a stunning, shattering ninety minutes of theater. But, it works. Translation: the playwright balances humor with introspection when it comes to perceptions women possess about their bodies. It's pretty funny and also, beyond the surface jokes, rich in theme and implication.

Tracy Brigden directs with specificity and the three actors are versatile and talented. Hence, as the figurative sphere is tossed from one woman to the next, "The Good Body" evolves smoothly.

I saw the show on a weekday evening. The audience was comprised, to large measure, of women. Watching their reactions spoke positive volumes for Ensler and her affecting play.

Friday, July 13, 2007

"Thoughtful, Affecting 'Cuckoo's Nest' at BTF

Eric Hill and I met nearly two decades ago and I've always known him to be sharply contemplative - an intellectual artist/dramatist in the most positive mode. Those qualities mark his production of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," the play by Dale Wasserman based upon Ken Kesey's still-stunning novel, which continues at Berkshire Theater Festival through July 28.

Many a director has discovered, through trial and error, that selection of the "right" cast members eliminates many rehearsal headaches. Sounds formulaic but tough to execute.
Hill's choices for roles within "Cuckoo's Nets" are excellent. The fits are precise. The patients (inmates?), whether petrified, emasculated, or gonzo provide sparks and laughter.

The novel, book, and Oscar winning movie version of "Cuckoo's Nest" centers upon a lively array of individuals ensconced in a state mental hospital. It's Fall 1960 and we are in the Pacific Northwest.

The provocative, playful, audacious, clever Randle P. McMurphy (Jonathan Epstein) meets and greets his comrades within the institution. He will later discover that stuttering Billy Bibbit (Randy Harrison), cerebral Dale Harding (Tommy Schrider) and others are self-admits. McMurphy is stunned. McMurphy discovers that Chief Bromden (Austin Durant) is neither deaf nor dumb; but a silent, sagacious, bitter observer.

The plot of the play differs from that of the film since the Chief actively narrates from time to time. One of the more galvanic scenes of the production occurs during the second act as McMurphy and Bromden interface, exchange, forge a friendship.

Many theatergoers will certainly enter with the image of Jack Nicholson (starring as the film's McMurphy) in mind. A few might recall that Gary Sinise took on the stage role half a dozen years ago. Not many realize that Kirk Douglas was the original McMurphy in the 1963 Broadway opening.

Jonathan Epstein, whose presence and command marked many a performance at Lenox-based Shakespeare & Company forever (it seems), presents an extroverted, physical, communicative, dramatic McMurphy this time around in Stockbridge. I keep in mind his turns as Shylock, Lear, Iago, King Richard, and others. That said, he is the fulcrum for the current "Cuckoo's Nest." Epstein's splendid work, his ability to become someone else, demonstrate reams of talent and dexterity.

The stereotype for Nurse Ratched's character suggests that she draw blood, rule with a harder than iron fist, threaten all. Linda Hamilton's portrayal, on the other hand, is quieter but just as insidious. If Epstein flies (wonderfully) over the top at times, she provides counterpoint with an understated, disciplined depiction of the hated tyrant.

The cast, including E. Gray Simons III as Cheswick and Robert Serrell as Martini, is energetic and sustaining.

Hill orchestrates the production. He supplies special touches. For example, during a Bromden commentary early on, all others on stage move carefully, deliberately from station to station.
Those familiar with Tadashi Suzuki training (Hill studied this for ten summers or so and teaches it) will note the slow-walk, its significance, and the skills required to execute the maneuver.

He benefits from Karl Eigsti's set which provides depth, feel, and atmosphere; and J Hagenbuckle delivers acute, piercing sounds and noises at key moments.

Hill is an actor, director, educator, and he heads the theater department at Brandeis. His StageWest productions provided many a seminal moment for Springfield-area theater lovers. That he is often directing and occasionally acting at BTF in the Berkshires is cause enough to snag tickets. Why am I not surprised that "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" is cutting and incisive - splendid theater?
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Monday, July 02, 2007

"A Number" - One Hour of Exacting Theater

TheaterWorks' production of "A Number," by Caryl Churchill, snags the viewer at moment number one of the hour long play. Running through July 29th at the Off Broadway style Hartford Theater, it's a taut, relevant, highly charged piece about cloning and its implications. Less, in this case, adds up to much, much more.

Steve Campo directs the play which finds actor Edmond Genest as Salter (the father) in conversation with "some" of his sons. Mark Saturno takes the stage initially as Son #2, who appears to be normal enough: he wears glasses, engages in discussion with his father. This son had thought his mother died when he was born. He now discovers this is not the case. Rather, he was the clone of an older son. The stage goes dark and actor Saturno returns as the first Bernard, a scary low-life type who is unkempt and furious. We learn that this Bernard was, in a sense, tossed away and became the original from which clones were produced. No fun. No wonder he's a negative piece of work. Finally, the third son (Saturno's transformations are stunning), wearing a V-neck sweater, smiling from ear to ear, greets his father. This son is too cheerful to be true. Genest, as the father, adapts.

Adrian W. Jones' set includes: a table, couple of chairs, walls, a window -- and a thrust stage. This is a home? These are lives?

At the outset, "A Number" is not only complicated but a bit convoluted. The script challenges the theatergoer to interpret and analyze - all to the good. Thematically, the material is undeniably unsettling. Salter is vexed, upset, in turmoil. It's a multi-layered play, examining ethics and morals.

The actors are superb. Saturno captures three characters, moving from one to another in a flash. Genest wears the pain incurred through his life choices visibly.

Churchill writes with precision and urgency. This is "A Number."
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